He is one of the 20th century’s most famous fashion designers who became involved in a fairytale royal wedding through loyal links to a proud patron. Cristobal Balenciaga, who was born on January 21st 1895, created the regal gown worn by Queen Fabiola of the Belgians on the day she said yes to a king and a crown. And the fairytale ending began with her granny.
Balenciaga’s links with the family of Fabiola de Mora y Aragon stretched back to the very start of his career. In fact, without their support, this legendary designer might have followed a very different path. Born in Getaria in the Basque Country, young Cristobal had watched his mother work tirelessly as a seamstress as she kept her family afloat following the early death of his father. Among those she worked for was the Marchioness of Casa Torres, one of the wealthiest and most influential women in his local area. The marchioness would prove crucial to his dreams.
Her home contained one of the finest collections of Spanish art and the young Cristobal spent hours studying it as his mother earned her money. That art would prove hugely influential in his work. But it wasn’t just the paintings that inspired the young Cristobal. Balenciaga was fascinated by the marchioness’ famously fashionable wardrobe. When he was 12, and around the time he became a tailor’s apprentice, he offered to design a dress for the marchioness. When she asked why, he replied ”because I think I can”.
Her encouragement and kindness to the boy helped him turn that raw ambition into one of the most successful fashion careers of the 20th century. She helped him get to Madrid where he underwent formal training in tailoring. She was also one of his first customers as he began to design his own ranges, cutting the patterns himself. The marchioness went from buying some of his creations to backing him as he built a glittering career. Balenciaga was soon making a name for himself, opening a chain of boutiques and winning the patronage of Spanish royalty. Meanwhile, the marchioness was becoming a matriarch and among her grandchildren was a little girl named Fabiola, born in 1928 as Balenciaga’s career was really taking off. However, when the monarchy fell and civil war broke out in Spain, he headed to Paris.
By the time Fabiola announced her engagement to King Baudouin of the Belgians, Balenciaga was a celebrated fashion leader. He created her wedding dress as a gift to the granddaughter of one of his greatest patrons.
Queen Fabiola’s wedding dress was one of the most talked about of the early 1960s. Featuring a fitted bodice with full length sleeves and a bell shaped ankle length skirt, it is made of white satin. The rounded neck is trimmed in white ermine as is the fitted, dropped waist, a controversial decision, and a long train flows from the shoulders of the dress. Fabiola wore it with white gloves as she married on December 15th 1960 when the weather in Brussels was more than chilly. Her veil was made of white tulle and held in place by the Nine Provinces Tiara, last worn by her groom’s mother, Astrid, who had also been Belgium’s last queen consort.
Fabiola ended up donating the dress to the Cristobal Balenciaga Foundation which celebrates the life and artistry of the great designer, who died in 1972. Her famous wedding gown has featured in several exhibitions, including one in Madrid two years ago and another at the Foundation’s museum. However, the grandmother who inspired the famous fashion moment didn’t live to see it. The Marchioness of Casa Torres died in 1935 but her interest in art and style and her kindness to a young boy with big dreams provided the background for a true royal fairytale.